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30 years later, the ‘lasting tragedy’ of Tiananmen Square

Tuesday marked 30 years since China's military suppressed a pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square with deadly force. But today, Chinese authorities made sure everything was normal at the site of the massacre. Remember the NewsHour's coverage of the tragedy, as Nick Schifrin talks to Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College and Orville Schell of the Asia Society about Tiananmen’s legacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thirty years ago today, hard-liners political leaders in the Chinese government ordered the military to crush public protests centered in Tiananmen Square. Those protests had been the longest and largest in modern Chinese history.

    The uprising, and the bloody crackdown, has had a profound impact on China and its relations with the rest of the world.

    But, as Nick Schifrin begins our coverage, there was little sign of that today in Beijing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tonight, on the site of one of modern history's bloodiest political crackdowns, the flag raised, the anthem played, and the tourists filmed. There was nothing out of the ordinary today on Beijing's Tiananmen Square. And that's how the Chinese wanted it.

    But while Chinese police ensured a quiet day, in Hong Kong tonight, activists held a somber candlelight vigil. In Taipei, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen led a prayer for the dead.

    And in a nearby cafe, Wu'er Kaixi relived the 1989 protest he helped lead and the crackdown he survived.

  • Wu’er Kaixi:

    Beijing city was under siege, and then it was a — it was a massacre. There is no other word to describe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    May 1989, for weeks, pro-democracy activists filled Tiananmen Square, fighting to improve human rights and political participation and end corruption. They even posed with a Statue of Liberty, the goddess of democracy.

    But overnight, into June 4, the People's Liberation Army rolled in to crush the protest. The statue was toppled, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed that night and the next day. A phalanx of soldiers unleashed fire, clearing the square and forcing students to run for their lives.

    They carried the wounded any way they could. But so many could not escape quickly enough. By then, the world was watching.

  • Robert MacNeil:

    We devote the remainder of the "NewsHour" tonight to the stunning events in China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On June 5, the "NewsHour" aired a story from Beijing by ITN's Jeremy Thompson:

  • Jeremy Thompson:

    As the full horror of the bloodletting began to sink in, residents wandered the streets, numb and outraged.

  • Man:

    I can hardly find any words to speak.

  • Jeremy Thompson:

    But the slaughter goes on unabated. We visited hospital morgues piled high with bodies. They're running out of space to store the unending processing of victims.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that day, the force of a million-man army, was, for a moment, stopped by one man. Tank Man became an icon of resistance. He won that battle that afternoon, but the war went on for days.

    This is June 7.

  • Narrator:

    The troops carriers bristled with machine guns. There were frequent bursts of fire as they cleared the way ahead. At one point, they sized down at least four bystanders. On the pavement, yet more Beijing citizens were left in pools of their own blood.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement, saying: "We salute the heroes of the Chinese people who bravely stood up 30 years ago."

    The Chinese Embassy responded, saying "Whoever attempts to patronize and bully the Chinese people will never succeed. They will only end up in the ash heap of history," which is where China wants these images to die.

    But Beijing also uses them as a warning. As police guarded Tiananmen Square today, a pro-Communist Party newspaper wrote, the crackdown was a — quote — "vaccine against future turmoil, an anniversary that actually guarantees stability."

    And we explore the legacy of Tiananmen and the impact that Tiananmen has had on today's China with Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Thirty years ago, he was a student in the U.S. and a democracy activist and appeared on the "NewsHour" on June 5, 1989. And Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S. and China Relations at the Asia Society, he was in Beijing during the protests.

    Welcome to you both back to "NewsHour."

    Minxin Pei, let me start with you.

    Take me back to those days. The protests weren't only in Beijing. They were across about 200 different cities. The government was divided on how to respond. The army tried to get in Beijing, and couldn't even reach there in the days before.

    How existential were these protests as a threat to the Chinese government?

  • Minxin Pei:

    I think that moment, that movement came very close to overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party's rule, because the party, as you said, was itself divided at the very top, and millions and millions of protesters were protesting around the country.

    And the country was really on the brink of a revolution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Orville Schell, you were in Tiananmen on those days ahead of the crackdown. What were these protesters, what were these students, most of them, asking for? And how high were their hopes?

  • Orville Schell:

    This was a movement that lasted over seven weeks.

    So, by the time it moved a few weeks down the line, they'd accrued all sorts of ordinary people, workers. There was every sort of aspect of social life represented.

    And I think the thing which is so striking about being there then was that, I mean, there was a sense of invincibility, that somehow they were on the crest of some major, major change, after decades and decades of a — kind of an only incipient democratic movement.

    And, Indeed, before the People's Liberation Army came in the first time, where they were stopped in their tracks in the streets by hundreds of thousands of people, there was this sense, as Minxin suggests, that maybe this time there would be a dynastic change.

    And that's what made it so shocking when they finally moved in the next time with guns blazing and showed they really meant business.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The next time they moved in, of course, was the anniversary that we're marking today, June 4, when hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed.

    Minxin, we now know more about what Chinese leaders were thinking, why they felt they had to go in to Tiananmen that night. Did they understand or did they misunderstand why these people were protesting and why they were so upset?

  • Minxin Pei:

    I think, at the beginning, they did not understand what the students were demanding, even though the students made their demands very, very clearly. They wanted more freedom to govern themselves. They wanted a free student union. They wanted the government to call them patriots, rather than troublemakers.

    These were very moderate demands. But toward June 4, the government, the senior leaders apparently had a different idea. They thought they had to make an example of this pro-democracy movement. They wanted to show that the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, means business when it says it would not tolerate any challenge to its power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Orville Schell, you have written about this recently.

    In the late '80s, China was opening up, was reforming. Did Tiananmen closed the door to those major political changes that could have happened?

  • Orville Schell:

    I think it really did.

    And that is part of the tragedy, never mind the bloodshed, was that the very hopeful period of admittedly halting and sometimes confusing political reforms that marked the '80s — and it was a stunning time. I mean, every single day, something happened which took your breath away. You couldn't believe that this — this country that had just come out of the Cultural Revolution would allow some of the things it allowed.

    But I think the party learned, and they learned with a vengeance, when the demonstrators filled the square, that this was the result of too much openness and reform, and they better begin to crack down.

    And I think, also, they felt deeply, deeply humiliated by having all of these students sitting in the middle of the middle of the middle of China and Beijing in Tiananmen Square.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Minxin Pei, let's fast forward to today, what Orville Schell just said about the party thinking that they had too much openness, that they had to crack down.

    Are those lessons that today's Communist Party still look back and believe that they have learned and so, therefore, are continuing that crackdown today?

  • Minxin Pei:

    Oh, they have learned quite a few lessons.

    One of them they have learned is that whenever they see signs of trouble, they have to crack down immediately and very forcefully. And that's why, in the last 30 years, there were hundreds, if not tens of thousands, of large-scale protests. None of these mushroomed into anything remotely close to Tiananmen Square moment.

    The other lessons they have learned, that, one, to counter Western liberalism, they have got to cultivate Chinese nationalism. And that's why, over the last 30 years, you saw this enormous increase in Chinese nationalist sentiments.

    Another thing they have learned, that they must prevent the rise of liberals within the Chinese Communist Party. And that's really the lasting tragedy of Tiananmen, because, in the last three decades, we have seen moderate, technocratic reformists, but we have not seen anybody within the Chinese Communist Party championing political reform the way the leaders in the 1980s did.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Orville Schell, we just heard Minxin Pei mention Chinese nationalism, Han nationalism.

    We have seen attacks on Chinese Uyghur Muslims in Western China, being thrown into what the Chinese call reeducation camps. Is the crackdown on Chinese Uyghur Muslims in part a legacy of what we saw in Tiananmen?

  • Orville Schell:

    Well, in a certain way, I think it is.

    There's a kind of a deep suspiciousness of any ethnic group or organization or religion that owes fealty to something other than the party and, in the case of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Muslims.

    And, in the case of the Tibetans, in Tibet, of course, they do have a very clear sense of ethnic identity and a clear sense also that they deserve at least greater autonomy, if not independence.

    And so this is very seditious to the Chinese Communist Party, which has one claim still to fame. It's not Marxism. It's not revolution or class struggle. It's the unity of China, to keep China unified.

    So, this puts tremendous premium on keeping the centrifugal forces of places like Xinjiang and the Muslims, who — which do have tendencies to want to become more autonomous, in line.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College, Orville Schell of the Asia Society, thank you very much to you both.

  • Minxin Pei:

    Thank you.

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